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University Governance 101 — takeaway lessons from UCT’s big Phakeng mess

University Governance 101 — takeaway lessons from UCT’s big Phakeng mess
Former UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng. (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press / Lucky Nxumalo)

The independent report into the governance crisis at the University of Cape Town, released this week, has pulled no punches in assigning blame to individuals — but it is the institution as a whole that has suffered. What can South Africa learn from UCT’s experience?

1 Who leads institutions really matters

There is sometimes an assumption that the identity of the person at the very top of an institution matters little. There are checks and balances to curb the worst excesses of power, goes this thinking, and so many people make up the DNA of large institutions that there’s a limit to how much harm one person can do.

This might be true for certain largely ceremonial roles — like the chancellor of a university — but it clearly is not valid for many others. South Africa learnt this the hard way through the presidency of Jacob Zuma, and UCT learnt this the hard way through the vice-chancellorship of Mamokgethi Phakeng.

This is made clear by the independent report into the governance crisis at UCT released this week. The report lists no fewer than nine individuals critical to the functioning of UCT — deputy vice-chancellors, executive directors and top administrators — who left the university as a more or less direct result of their treatment at the hands of the leadership duo of Phakeng and the UCT Council chair, Babalwa Ngonyama.

Elsewhere the report details other significant resignations with the same cause, including of committed UCT Council members.

Those who remained, the investigating panel found, were generally too cowed by Phakeng to speak out. The total administrative costs of this malaise are yet to be fully tallied, but the negative effects on staff morale across the university are undisputed. The reputational blows to UCT have been equally severe.

2 Be careful who you hire

The report singles out former UCT council chair Sipho Pityana for special criticism for his role in ushering Phakeng into power despite knowing of her chequered reputation both at UCT and her previous places of employment.

“Pityana and the Selection Committee were aware that there were serious concerns about her leadership. Not only was her unprofessional behaviour evident, but [former VC Max] Price had cautioned Pityana against appointing her,” the report found. It also expressed something close to disbelief at how little Pityana and his council did to “discipline the VC or terminate her contract”.

Pityana’s decision would turn out to be a remarkably expensive one for UCT. In eventually ridding itself of Phakeng, it had to pay her a golden handshake of R12-million, while legal bills and the costs of related early contract terminations have run to additional millions — particularly problematic for an institution partly funded with public money.

The fact that Phakeng has been able to walk away with millions is understandably grating to those whose careers and mental health she dented through what the report bluntly calls “abuse”. But today, UCT insiders still defend the Phakeng payout as value for money compared to the damage that could have been done through a lengthy legal battle to dislodge her. Moral of the story: be careful who you hire, because it’s a lot easier to hire than to fire.

3 Make sure there are clear avenues to hold those in power accountable

The report suggests that this was one of the major problems of Phakeng’s tenure: there was simply no clear way to hold the VC accountable. It records that Phakeng thought being asked to justify her personal expenses “amounted to bullying”, viewed negative features of her performance appraisal as “gaslighting”, and was “dismissive of attempts to performance-manage her and rejected the criticism of her behaviour”.

One of the only meaningful attempts to hold Phakeng to account was undertaken by the former UCT ombud, Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, who went public with the volume of bullying complaints against Phakeng and ended up losing her job. It was an incident which revealed, apart from anything else, the toothlessness of the ombud role.

Daily Maverick has also heard accounts from multiple former UCT staff members of how their attempts to pursue grievances against Phakeng or seek assistance in managing their relationships with her came to nought — due to Phakeng’s administrative capture and a general reluctance to take on Phakeng. These staff members understandably feel deeply let down by the institution as a whole.

4 A bad work environment is genuinely scarring

One of the clearest takeaways of the report is that those who tussled with Phakeng paid a serious psychological price. It acknowledges that one of the effects of the UCT governance crisis was “emotional trauma to many individuals”.

There are multiple accounts in the report of Phakeng reducing colleagues to tears and severely negatively affecting colleagues’ mental health. There are 17 references to Phakeng “humiliating” colleagues.

However melodramatic this may sound, multiple former colleagues have told Daily Maverick of the difficulties they experienced in returning to full mental health after their experiences in the UCT administration.

To quote one: “The problem for those that suffered the trauma is that healing is a hard and long journey.”

5 Anger lingers

Episodes like these, lasting years in an institution’s history, cannot easily be moved past. UCT should not be surprised to find itself the target of further legal action on the part of aggrieved former staff members after the publication of the report.

The report has recommended that UCT make apologies to no fewer than 46 individuals in total for their experiences at the hands of the former VC, that UCT compensate various individuals for legal action and that UCT “must make available, at its expense, a counselling service for any complainant who experienced bullying by the erstwhile VC”.

Some will say this is necessary but insufficient.

A further headache awaits, meanwhile, in terms of individuals who have been strongly criticised by the report for their actions in the period under consideration who nonetheless remain in positions at UCT: notably, Council member Pheladi Gwangwa and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Elelwani Ramugondo.

The report found that Ramugondo probably lied to both the investigating panel and at least one other committee regarding an offensive tweet she posted about a colleague. It found that Ramugondo should have recused herself in a number of Council meetings but did not do so, defended the use of “offensive and racially loaded language to stigmatise [opponents]” in Council meetings, and consistently voted against the motion to establish the investigating panel “on the baseless ground that it was symptomatic of a culture of institutionalised racism”.

There will be many eyes trained on UCT to see how it deals with this — and what other steps it can take to draw a firm line under the Phakeng era while acknowledging the serious harm that has been caused. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    When will we learn that MERIT based appointments, in all businesses and other institutions, is the only sustainable basis for selection. Social engineering, no matter how justified, never works. Change is a long process and leadership is earned.

    • Billy Gildy says:

      Merit-based does not exclude addressing racial imbalances. Arguing against social engineering is a way of being oblivious to our past. Pretending will not make it disappear. The argument that one cannot walk while chewing is infantile and misguided. This lady was the worst possible hire, irrespective of the criteria.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Dare I say, since presidential appointment, viva anc viva,!

  • Richard Robinson says:

    So, will UCT claim back all these costs from former UCT council chair Sipho Pityana, as he precipitated this gemors, despite advice not to? Failure of fiduciary duty?

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      It was pretty obvious well before Phakeng was appointed VC that Pityana was weak and out of his depth: he is responsible for kicking the can down the road for the next Council in several instances – most notably the Ombud’s report – instead of dealing with it, as he should have. That, and the fact that it appears that UCT’s Council was effectively captured on his watch, by having a Phakeng-supporting cabal elected, should be grounds for censure at the very least. The fact that a cabal consisting of the VC and Chair and Deputy Chair could ride roughshod over all the rules of meetings and of procedure, and arrogate to themselves aspects of governance that were in the province of Executive Directors, caused all of the subsequent problems. One could only wish that a few more people could have stood up to this crew – and not meekly (or not so meekly, in some cases) resign, leaving them to carry on. I am looking here at members of Council and the ED of HR, among others. What a mess! I’m actaully glad it has all been resolved as I am about to retire; I don’t think I would have wanted an association with UCT that was still enmired in this mess.

  • Richard Robinson says:

    Was this an instance of ethnic cleansing?

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      No – it was an instance of African Nationalism, disguised under the term African Capitalism; where ANC cadres or connected supporters think they can abuse what was built up through the hard work of others over centuries to enjoy themselves because they are in a position to do so. Here I am not only referring to Phakeng, but also those who recommended her appointment. We have seen this ample times before: Mkwebane appointed as PP, looting of the Post Office, Transnet, Eskom, municipalities, the government, hollowing out of the NPA, the Treasury . . . the list goes on. What should be happening is, as Ramaphosa alluded to a few months ago, that we should vote these corrupt politicians out of power, which effectively means voting the ANC out of power because in SA we don’t have the means of voting individual politicians out (I can’t help to wonder if Ramaphosa really realised what he was saying, because it would mean that he would also lose his job). Next year is a golden opportunity to do just that; the only problem is that there is no obvious alternative because the opposition is also particularly lousy.

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      Is this tongue-in-cheek, or are you serious?! Way off beam, in any case.

  • Stephen Paul says:

    For those of you who might be interested in learning a bit more about the culture at UCT I would recommend “The Fall of the University of Cape Town” by David Benatar.

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      If you want to get really depressed, sure! And get a little tired of the “poor me” theme that pervades it. BUT as a historical record of what went on in especially the Humanities Faculty at UCT, it ought to be used as the basis of more investigations.

  • Hari Seldon says:

    Top leadership appointment has to be merit based – not an affirmative action decision. Ask Siya Kolisi…

  • Brett Redelinghuys says:

    Great article, concise and to the point. Massive subject, skillfully reduced and put in clear, simple points.
    This is prevalent in many institutions and because the spineless believe the strategy to hide and fight another day, is the best solution. Sadly, it requires us all to uncomfortably stand up every day to these bullies.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    While these days it’s an unpopular view, it is also clear that merely changing gender and/or race without the required skills (including leadership skills) is not sufficient, even in the name of transformation. Would she have been protected for as long as she was if she would not have been black and female? Why did no one listen to the concerms of the bullied? Clearly blindly following the transformation directive can have serious unintended consequences, especially if it is aggressively utilized like Phakeng did.

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    All that is black, is not gold. When will the current crop of “leaders” learn that?

    • Billy Gildy says:

      True, just like all that is white is not gold. This lady was not even bronze.
      Completely out of her depths. The fact that she was paid to go away still hurts my head.

  • Lorraine Laurence says:

    I love your headline, such a clever play on words, “UCT’s big Phakeng mess”.

  • Tembile Kulati says:

    Thanks for this very good article, Rebecca. Unfortunately, your statement that “It was an incident which revealed, apart from anything else, the toothlessness of the ombud role” betrays your ignorance about the role and function of the ombud in an organisation. It also contradicts your earlier observations about the central role Ms Makamandela-Mguqulwa’s played in bringing the destructive behaviour of the former VC to the attention not only of UCT, but of the broader public, through the UCT Ombuds Annual Report, 2019 (which is available on the UCT website). I am also certain that Zetu will disagree with this statement were you to put it to her, otherwise she would not continue to be serving as the Chairperson of the Africa Regional Advisory Committee of the International Ombuds Association.

    • Billy Gildy says:

      I see your point but I also get the jist of Rebacca’s comment. The ombud is almost as toothless as the UN. Respected but little or no power. Just passing endless resolutions that people can afford to ignore.

  • Too little too late. Like everything else in this country. My sincere sympathy to all who suffered at the hands of this woman. I hope you will continue with your studies and work and fulfil your potential under a benevolent and wise leadership.

  • Barrie King says:

    Another shambles caused by blind adherence to transformation and BBBEE. UCT Admin can’t have that many employees that the number who were affected by those 2 individuals was insignificant. 17 references to “humiliating colleagues” and recommended apologies to 46 is staggering! What happened to oversight? To lose so many competent experienced staff to bullying by the VC, and not one word of sanction. Then to add salt to the gaping wound, she gets a golden handshake worth R12m! As with all other instances across our country, the culprit escapes with the spoils! Shocking and disgraceful. She, Ngonyama, and Pityana should have been made to pay in R12m, or more, to cover the legal, counselling, & unemployment costs of the innocent ones who were forced to leave UCT by her! Another case of Phak up and you get rewarded!!

  • Billy Gildy says:

    I have said this before and I will say it again; everyone involved in the hiring of this train wreck deserves to be sanctioned. I say this as a black person who thinks racial diversity is greatly needed at management levels. The hiring process that led to her appointment needs to be revisited. Whatever the criteria, she was clearly unsuited for that role.

  • Cachunk Cachunk says:

    How long before she joins the EFF?

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    I like what you did with that headline there, DM! 😁

  • Hello There says:

    A sad story indeed. As noted by other commentators, this is a volcano erupting at UCT but indicative of a deep running fault line that has and will cause quakes at other institutions.
    What doesn’t transpire from the analysis is why such an obviously incompetent person managed to be elevated in a leadership position in the first place. I’d say it’s the activist commitment to transformational change, born out of a covert narcissist inferiority complex, which makes these individuals at times charming and believable but at most times cruel and destructible when faced with criticism or any hint at their obvious incompetence.
    In essence, when hiring, beware of ‘leaders’ who bring gifts of activism and some utopian vision – at the expense of real world perspectives, empathetic leadership and managerial skills.

  • It seems there is a serious need for intervention in leadership spaces with regards to Governance and what it actually entails when dealing with employees or colleagues working under your leadership. There’s clearly more that needs to be done in all institutions.

  • ak47.king ak47.king says:

    This type of racialised bullying of white university staff (especially women) by black university staff is not only prevalent at UCT. It is happening at other universities all over South Africa. HR is often not interesting in helping staff who are being bullied as they often have their own agenda of getting rid of all white staff. There is only so much you can put up with before you have to resign. These universities are forcing out key technical staff (often leaving academic departments with no technical support, especially science departments) because they are white. These departments are then stuck with no technical support for up to a year or more while HR finds a ‘suitable replacement’. Science departments then struggle to provide the proper teaching experience to students which will negatively effect their education as they end up missing key technical skills needed in the industry that they will eventually work in once they have finished their degrees. Science and Engineering are scarce skills in SA so we really can’t afford to sabotage the education of future scientists and engineers this way.

  • There is great hope, via this article, that a turnaround strategy is emerging in SA. It would be wonderful to see a well- balanced governance prevailing in most developmental areas. A good balance benefits everyone in our country – colour and race do not feature or matter.

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